Friday, November 27, 2015

Quality short fiction of the unusual and bizarre variety

Answers of Silence

By Geoff Cooper

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: September 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The fifteen pieces of short fiction, including a novelette size effort, in Answers of Silence involves a wide range of plot and emotion. All of them are on the dark side and most have a horror or supernatural element. Yet Geoff Cooper always goes for the unusual and the surprising making the tales constantly entertaining and unique. I have never heard of Geoff Cooper before this but he seems to have a reputation for quality writing among the indie writers and the lovers of the grotesque. His output is slim and this short story collection, a reprint released this year by Deadite Press, appears to have a range of his works from early to recent. That usually means uneven but each of the works has its strengths.

It starts with an especially strong one titled "A Question of Doves" that both scare and mystifies. It is one of those tales that doesn't have to explain everything to pack a punch. In other words, it is intelligent horror as most of the stories here are. "Incentive No. 43" is a powerful serial killer story that is simplistic in plot yet complex in characterization. It is one of the pieces with no fantasy element. I thought "Mo 3:16" was going to be more non-supernatural psychological suspense but it threw me a curve near the end that made it one of the most disturbing of the stories. "Badgetree" is almost old fashioned like a cross between Brothers Grimm and Algernon Blackwood. "The Sheriff of Pense Avenue" is one of the earlier works and the author, as noted in his afterword, seems a little embarrassed by it. He shouldn't be. It may lack the maturity of some of the other fiction but it is still creative and daring. "Strangers, Good Friend and a Bottle of Wine" is the type of tale that would have felt at home in the old Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine and shows a little humor in the tension.

And so it goes until we get to the last and longest story in the collection: "One Eyed Jack". It is also the most recent and the best. It starts out like one of those old men's magazine stories with its macho World War Adventure theme, swerves a little into Heart of Darkness territory, then goes head first into Weird Tales times twelve. Exciting, mystifying and thoroughly worth the effort.

Geoff Cooper is certainly a talent. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next. It also appears that there may be a bit of a wait due to his small output but I hope not. Good intelligent writers of strange fantasy and horror are sorely needed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not your ordinary exorcism

A Head Full of Ghosts

By Paul Tremblay

Publisher: William Morrow 

Pub. Date: June 2, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What the world needs is a good exorcism. Send a couple priests up into space. Let they spray three trillions tons of holy water or whatever on Planet Earth and let them exorcise the hell out of the rock. If eighty percent of the population bursts into flames or smoke out as in a Supernatural episode then so be it. Whoever is left, after the demons that are screwing up this world are vanquished, would then be free to fix the place up and perhaps they will get it right for once. I mean, really! Can this planet get much worse? But since that is not going to happen, it is going to be one exorcism at a time. Tedious but what are you going to do? It's a nice fantasy, whether you go single file "Get behind me, Satan!" or planetary exor-fest.

Of all the varieties of horror themes, I believe exorcism and the idea of demon possession is the one that scares people the most. It also may be the most cathartic. With the wide range of atrocities mankind can inflict on one another, the idea of "The Devil made me do it!" can be as comforting as demon possession is horrifying. In A Head Full of Ghosts Paul Tremblay is dealing with demon possession and exorcism but he is also dealing with the labyrinth of natural inner demons that even the most innocent may have within them.

The Barretts are a family in crisis mainly because of the odd schizophrenic like behaviors of the oldest daughter, Marjorie. Despite her regular visits to a psychiatrist she continues to get worst. Her religiously inclined father seeks the help of a priest who is convinced she is demon possessed. As the family is in serious financial trouble, they agree to have the exorcism televised in a virtual TV series titled "The Possession".

That is the start of A Head Full of Ghosts. What follows is a deviously clever mix of The Exorcist and We Need To Talk About Kevin. The tale is told by the younger sister Meredith aka "Merry" 15 year later and is told through a interview she gives with a writer who wishes to write a book about her family and the incidents that befalls the TV show. We also get some insight by a blogger who goes under the name of Karen Brissette. Merry was eight years old at the time of her sister's possession and the telling through the eyes of the adult Meredith allows a deeper dimension than if the story was told at the time by 8 year old Merry. And here is the rub. Merry adores her sister yet Marjorie is very manipulative and more than a little sadistic. It is a form of manipulation that confuses the young girl Merry but is still haunting the older Meredith. When Marjorie develops the symptoms of demon possession she tells Merry she is faking it. But is she? Marjorie is either truly possessed or a very disturbed and psychopathic teenager. The suspense lies in finding out which one it is. Yet the tension of the telling resides in Merry's own childish confusion about what is happening and her own precarious position as the youngest member of the family which places her in a terrifying role as the drama unfolds.

I was totally enamored by A Head full of Ghosts; the structure and the plotting, the characters, and most of all, the clever mingling of horror and family psychodrama. The biggest achievement was how Tremblay told the oft-told exorcism story in an unusual way that turned some of the gimmicks on its head. The author is of course well aware of the gimmicks of the standard exorcism plot as cemented in our culture by William Blatty's book and film, The Exorcist. In fact, the movie is often referenced in the book not only to set a foundation but perhaps also as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the traps Blatty has set up for future writers in the genre. Tremblay takes those traps head on and make the story his own. However you think the story will unfold in the end, I predict you will be surprised. Head Full of Ghost is a strong entry in the psychological horror division and may be the best book to take on the idea of exorcism and demon possession since Blatty's seminal novel. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Strange topic, worthy message

Animal Suicide

By Alexandro Chen


Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 

Pub. Date: November 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

What a strange and lovely book Animal Suicide is. With a title destined to chase away a few people, Animal Suicide turns how to be a bitterweet tale about the meaning of life and the frailty of relationships. Li-Mei is going to commit suicide but decides not to after her mother calls to say her Chihuahua died. He was found hanging from his chain in a tree. With no motive or suspects, Li-Mei determines that the dog killed himself and discovers that suicides among animals are not unheard of. The topic of animal suicide becomes an obsession for her and, as you can figure, doesn't really do much for her social life. That is until she meets two other people interested in the topic and joins the Animal Self-Destruction Observation Club to explore her obsession.

The author Alexandro Chen uses this slightly uncomfortable topic to craft an odd but humorous tale that is not really about animal suicide as much as figuring how what life is about and why life become so meaningless to some people as to contemplate ending it. Each of the three people have a reason for being interested in this strange topic. Li-Mei is not really sure why she is suicidal. She has a good if dull and isolated life. The novel is presented through her first-person narration. What starts out as a strange tale of obsession with death becomes an equally strange but comforting romance. During the club's field trip we are given little hints about what the hell everything is about but what kept me going was Li-Mei's own development as she finds a connection with De-Shi, the boy who started the club. What develops and how it ends gives this somewhat simple story its heart and soul.

This short novel is one of those quirky but brief tales that stay with you. The somewhat neurotic approach to relationships and romance gives it a Haruki Murakami edge while the very dry humor that creeps up in the most unpredictable times reminds me of Vonnegut. What it also have in common is an on-the-fence nihilism which is eventually overcomed by an humanistic light. Animal Suicide may not provide anyone answers to the meaning of life but it may shed some light on why people like Li-Mei keep on going despite confusion and chaos. Animal Suicide turned out to be a pleasant surprise in the massive outpouring of publications this year. Hopefully enough people will pick up this book and get the word out. Alexandro Chen is not only a gifted writer but one who is willing to try to make sense out of the insanity called life. Whether he will succeed in that endeavor is highly doubtful but that just means he is as human as we are.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The last issue of a notable literary journal

Lazy Fascist Review #3

Edited by Cameron Pierce

Publisher: Lazy Fascist Press

Pub Date: August 1, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

First, we have the good news. The bi-annual Lazy Fascist Review is continuing to improve in presenting some of the newest and most talented writers around. It has succeeded in finding its unique role in the precarious and quirky literary journal world.

The bad news? This will be the last issue.

Yes, Lazy Fascist Review will be no longer, as recently announced by the editor Cameron Pierce. It is more than sad since the journal started impressively but tenuously and matured with each issue. In Issue number 3, there is not one bad story in the six pieces of fiction between the covers. Authors include Tiffany Scandal. Allison Floyd, Nick Mamatas, Daphne Gottlieb,and Tania Terblanche. South African author Berblanche has two works which is appropriate since her writings seem to be very brief but loaded with the type of prose that invites another look and another read. One of the great things about this journal is that LFR and the contributions within defies easy labeling. If anything, they have eschewed the Bizarro /Horror label of its parent publishing company, Eraserhead Press and dived deep into the waters labeled literary with a capital L. Some of the fiction can be label existentialist or surreal yet it is not the strange surreal of the dadaists or the Bizarros but the everyday surreal of a Cheever or Pinter. The stories invite several readings in order to really get the emotional power they possess..

Pierce also continues the quirky twist of having beer tasting reviews and pairing each story with a beer. This is the type of move that makes this journal different and down to earth. While LFR is a serious endeavor, it is not so serious you can't enjoy a brew or two. There are also intelligent and thoughtful reviews of various books.

One big different between this and the first two issues is that there is one non-fiction essay. Somewhat surprisingly, i found it to be the best article in the journal. Nick Carson, the drummer for metal band Witch Mountain, writes about his recent road tour with an intimacy and insight rarely seen.

I strongly recommend that you buy this book to see how a literary journal can and should be done. You might as well get all three so you can brag you have the full set.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Pagans, sex and clothes hangers

Ritualistic Human Sacrifice

By C.V. Hunt

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Pub Date: October 15, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Nick Graves may be one of the most selfish, unlikable persons in literature. He lives in a loveless marriage egged on by his self-centeredness, sexual selfishness, and failure to mend. He is ready to tell his wife that he is leaving her and getting a divorce. Then his wife drops a bomb on him. She is pregnant despite the fact that they have agreed not to have children. Nick's response is to buy a house without her consent and move them to a place away from her friends and any of the pleasures she get from life. The way he figures it is that if she make one decision without him, he gets to make the others and control her. But what Nick doesn't know is, as terrible as he acts, there are things that are even worst and he has no idea what control is.

The novels of C. V. Hunt are miniature masterpieces of transgressive fiction. Her protagonists are not your model citizens. They are often selfish, filled with hate and sometime simply insane. Yet in her mastery of dark fiction, she manages to always find something worse than her characters. What is strange and wonderful is that I found myself hating and rooting for Nick at the same time by the end of her latest novel, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice. The title gives you a hint of where it is going and that is confirmed with its three section: The Preparation, The Ceremony, and The Sacrifice. Yet that doesn't begin to describe the gory and violent turns that will be discovered. The story is full of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. In fact, it is a little hard to think of what she left out in its approximately 200 pages. But this is what C. V. Hunt does well. She places the reader in the most depressive and terrible situation and makes the reader's experience liberating. It is the reason horror novels work for many people and this is definitely a horror novel. But I think Hunt's novels are more than just visceral horror. I have compared them to the existentialist writers before and I still think it fits. Clive Barker once told me that he wanted to depict Evil existing without the need for a Good. I think Hunt takes this idea further. But as dark as her novels can get, it doesn't mean there isn't good and nobility out there. A character named Morgan hints that there is nobility hidden out there somewhere. Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is not without its glimmer of light. Yet, as Nick learns in uncomfortable ways, there is always a bigger asshole than you.

Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is one of the most disturbing and controversial novels of 2015 even for horror. It is also one of the best. While I still have a soft spot for the novelette Baby Hater, this new one shows that the author gets better with every book and every twisted idea. Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is not for the squeamish and certainly not for anyone who complained that 50 Shades of Gray was too kinky, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a masterful story told by one of our strangest and darkest storytellers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An intelligent but tense mystery from France

The Circle

By Bernard Minier


Publisher:  Minotaur Books 

Pub Date: October 27, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From what I can tell, Bernard Minier appears to be one of the premier French writers of mysteries in the last couple of years. His first novel, The Frozen Dead was a best-seller in France and crossed over into the English language market last year revealing an very intelligent author who doesn't sacrifice thrills and surprises for his complex plotting and distinctly literary style. This year we get the second of his novels featuring French police inspector, Commandant Martin Servaz. As much as I enjoyed the first book, The Circle far surpassed it in pretty much every way possible.

Martin Servaz is thrown into another murder case. This one is at the request of a long ago friend whose son, Hugo, was found drugged and disoriented at his teacher's house. The body of his teacher is found drowned in a tub. Everything points to the boy committing the murder but Servaz is persuaded to investigate by Hugo's mother who Servaz knew when he went to school and shared a troubling relationship. There is also the fact that some of the evidence appears to be linked the incident to a serial killer he has been tracking.

While the murder mystery of the novel is stand-alone from the first novel, much of the story is not. Many of the main characters including the serial killer Julian Hirtmann and the Commandant's troubled but loyal staff are included in this novel and they all come with back stories started in The Frozen Dead. You can read The Circle as a stand-alone but it is best to read The Frozen Dead first. But The Circle is still a stunning work encompassing a large cast of characters, plenty of sub-plots and red herrings, and a ton of psychological angst, especially in the character of Martin Servaz. It doesn't help that he still feels for the mother of the suspected murderer or that his daughter is going to the school where the murder took place or that the killer Hirtmann seems to be leaving messages threatening recontact with either Servaz or someone he cares about. The Circle is as much as a psychological thriller as a detective novel. It is the intricate plotting that makes this work. Once you think you have one character figured out, something else arrives and throw you off your game. In The Frozen Dead I criticized it for having too many sub-plots and false leads but here, that is actually a strength. Minier is weaving each one together as soon as they appear and we can see and admire the artistry of this literary weaving of plot on plot and character flaw on character flaw. Minier's talent for distinct and beautiful descriptions of environment and atmosphere is still evidenced too. As for the character's development from the first to the second novel, I found all the character's fascinating even though Servaz remains the most involving. We also get to see more of a glimpse into the elusive killer, Julian Hirtmann who, in this and presumably subsequent novels, appears to be giving Hannibal Lector a run for his money.

Minier has now written two eloquent detective novels and has developed a strong personality in Martin Servaz. This is a novel that I not only recommend to the mystery lover but to anyone who likes their mysteries on the intelligent side with lots of psychological tension. I will be keeping my eye out for the next one.